By: Dan Leach
As sports fans salivate as the calendar turns to March, we all know the NCAA Tournament is right around the corner. On the way though, there is going to be the first rash of buzzer beaters, insane upsets, and broken hearts as the conference tournaments get going. I will take a look at conference tourneys far and wide, players who could become household names, and who will cut down the conference nets, getting you ready for what should be a March and April to remember.
Big East (March 12th-16th) Madison Square Garden, New York City
Favorite-Louisville (26-5 14-4) +$170 – The Cards are one of a dozen or so teams that I feel have a chance to cut down the nets in Atlanta. They are playing at one of the highest levels in the country right now at the most important time and have the inside-outside game offensively that you need to go on a run in March. They come into the final ever Big East tourney winners of seven straight and have a point guard in Peyton Seva who has the leadership qualities that can get your team going on a deep run. Russ Smith has been spectacular as well leading the team in scoring at 17.9 ppg. Center Gorgui Dieng is a presence in the middle and will be tough to slow down in NY.
Contenders-Georgetown (24-5 14-4) +$250
Syracuse (23-8 11-7)+$500- The Cuse have been deteriorating as fast as Justin Bieber as of late and come into the Big East tourney with a team that is talented enough to cut down the Nets at MSG, but likely doesn’t have that belief in itself to do so. Jim Boeheim is one of the greatest coaches of all-time, but if he was able to navigate his team to the Final Big East tournament title, it would go down as one of his best coaching jobs ever. The Cuse does always play well in NYC and has players like C.J Fair, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Southerland who can take over games.
Marquette (23-7 14-4) +$600
Pittsburgh (24-7 12-6) +$800
Longshots-Notre Dame (23-8 11-7) +$1000
Cincinnati (21-10 9-9) +$1500
DTM Pick-Georgetown The Hoyas simply have been spectacular over the past month and future NBA Lottery pick Otto Porter Jr been the biggest part of that success. Porter has put this team on his back and leads the squad in scoring at 16.4 ppg, rebounds at 7.5, free throw %, and steals. G-town comes into the tourney winning 14 of their last 16, including two wins over Syracuse in the last two weeks of the season, the latter holding the Cuse to their lowest point total in the Boeheim Era. The way the Hoyas have been playing smothering D as well is another reason I think they will be tough to beat in NYC.
Big Ten (March 14th-17th) United Center, Chicago
Favorite- Indiana (26-5 14-4) +$120 The Hoosiers just literally stole the final regular season B10 game from Michigan and in the process won their first B10 regular season crown since 1993, when one Robert Knight was roaming the sideline and occasionally throwing chairs. They come into the tourney on a huge high and have the most balanced team in the conference. B10 defensive POY Victor Oladipo has been nothing short of amazing and Cody Zeller, also a national POY candidate, is third in the conference in scoring and leads the Hoosiers with 16.8 ppg. Jordan Hulls is deadly from three, hitting at 48.7% and Christian Watford is a senior leader who can take over games as well.
Contenders-Michigan (25-6 12-6) +$260 The Wolverines come into the B10 tourney stunned after the heartbreak to Indiana, their only loss at home all season. The loss also moved Michigan from the 3-seed down to the 5-seed, meaning they have to open on the first day of the tournament instead of getting a bye. Michigan has the talent to win this tournament, but their road is the toughest of any of the top six seeds and if they let the Indiana loss get to them, could have an early exit. National Player of the Year candidate and B10 POY Trey Burke has put this team on his shoulders all season long and will need to do so again if they are going to cut down the nets in Chicago. Freshman Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas, and veteran leader Tim Hardaway JR will need to contribute if the Wolverines are going to traverse a brutal road to the championship game. The x-factor for Michigan could be freshman Mitch McGary, who has been playing much better defense late in the season after seemingly hitting a freshman wall.
Michigan State (23-7 12-5) +$280 Michigan State comes into the tourney as a bit of an enigma. The Spartans looked like one of the best teams in the country before going on a three game losing streak towards the end of the regular season. They have gained some footing back by beating Wisconsin and Northwestern to end the conference slate, but still have some question marks coming into the tournament. Can Keith Appling regain his confidence as he was nonexistent in the Spartans three game losing streak and can B10 freshman of the year Gary Harris come through in what will be many clutch situations if this team is to win this tourney? The Spartans do catch a small break with their bracket as they would not have to play to teams that have recently beat them in Indiana or Michigan until the championship game.
Ohio State (23-7 13-5) +$700
Longshot- Wisconsin (21-10 12-6) +$800
SEC (March 13th-17th) Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN
Favorite-Florida (24-6 14-4) +$200 The Gators come into the SEC tourney as a team that has all the pieces to win this tourney and make a Final Four run to Atlanta, but simply can’t totally be trusted to do either. Every time the Gators seem to get it all going they take a step back with sometimes head scratching losses. The most recent coming at Kentucky and Tennessee. It is never easy to win on the road in the SEC against desperate teams, but in those two games at least The Gators high potent offense went away and went away for long stretches. They still come in as easily the fave to cut down the nets in Nashville, but will need great performances from leading scorer Kenny Boynton and their defensive stalwart, center Patric Young. Guard Mike Rosario and his 12.3 ppg could be the x-factor for the Gators as when he is on they have been very tough to beat.
Contenders-Missouri (22-9 11-7) +$400
Kentucky (21-10 12-6) +$700 Last year’s defending National Champs have been gasping for air seemingly for the past month , but found a way to get a huge win to end the regular season against Florida, which might have for the time being put the Wildcats back in the NCAA tourney. They will likely need to win a couple games in Music City to make Selection Sunday less stressful and even without star Nerlens Noel, have the type of team that could give you fits. Freshman guard Archie Goodwin has picked up Noel’s slack and leads the team in scoring at 14.1 ppg and fellow Frosh Forward Alex Poythress has been playing at a high level as well and will be a big factor in the Cats success in this tourney.
DTM Pick- Florida
ACC (March 14th-17th) Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
Favorite- Duke (24-6 15-3) +$125 Duke simply is a different team with Ryan Kelly back. Without him they seemed to lack confidence, a late game killer instinct, and a player they could rely on to take the big shot when needed. With him back they look like a team that can not only win the ACC tourney, but win a national championship. Seth Curry has been dazzling for the Blue Devils all season long and can shoot the three as good as anyone in the country. Forward Mason Plumlee really filled the holes while Kelly was out, averaging a double-double. He also leads the team in scoring 17.2 ppg and rebounding with 10.3 rpg.
Contenders- Miami (FL) (24-6 15-3) +$200
North Carolina (22-9 12-6) +$400
North Carolina State (22-9 11-7) +$400
Longshot-Virginia (21-10 11-7) +$700
Dtm Pick- Miami (FL) The Canes have been a lot of fun to watch this season and for most of the ACC regular season looked like the best team in the conference. That has changed a little since Ryan Kelly came back for Duke, but Coach Jim Larranaga has the Canes in their best position to win an ACC tourney and make a deep run in March in the programs history. The Canes started 13-0 in conference play, a record, ended 15-3, winning their first ACC regular season title. Shane Larkin has been a monster for Miami all season long leading the team in scoring at 13.7 ppg and showing great leadership for a sophomore. Senior Kenny Kadji has been a defensive wiz and has been a go-to-guy in late game situations. The Canes would not have to play the Blue Devils until the championship game and if it gets to that won’t waver as they almost knocked off Duke on the road and absolutely ripped them, 90-63, in Coral Gables.
Dan Leach has a PhD in Bracketology and Early European Literature, has been counseling Justin Bieber on the trials and tribulations of fame, and just signed on to play Luke Skywalker’s son in the upcoming J.J. Abrams directed “Star Wars: Episode VII”